Don't Get Lost on the Way to Yosemite from San Francisco
It’s late. You’re tired. You trusted your GPS — your car’s navigation system — or your mobile phone app to get you to the right place. You thought you’d be in Yosemite Valley by now. Instead, you’re on a two-lane road, looking straight at a mountain while your non-helpful device chirps happily: “You have arrived."
If you want to make sure that doesn’t happen to you, here what to do:
Yosemite by Automobile from San Francisco or Los Angeles
Yosemite is a three to four-hour drive from San Francisco and about six hours from Los Angeles. You can get started using any GPS or mapping software you like. It's what you do when you get closer to the park that's important.
Routes to Yosemite from the West
Most Scenic Route: CA Hwy 140: I always go to Yosemite on Hwy 140. It's by far the most scenic drive into the park and the best way to go if you’re visiting for the first time. It’s open most of the time and passes through the towns of Mariposa and Fish Camp. It’s also a popular route for people driving to Yosemite from the San Jose area.
From US Hwy 99 at Merced, CA Hwy 140 passes through open ranch land, into the wooded foothills. The old mining town of Mariposa has an old-fashioned main street, some cute shops and places to eat, making it a good spot to stop and stretch your legs before continuing to the park.
Continuing uphill through Midpines, the road parallels the Merced River for about 30 miles. In spring, redbud trees along its banks sprout magenta-colored flowers and the river rises high enough to accommodate whitewater rafters, but it’s a pretty drive in any season. The road goes straight into the park, through the Arch Rock entrance.
CA Hwy 120:
After winter storms in early 2017, Hwy 120 was closed into Yosemite Valley between Crane Flat and Foresta, but as of mid May, it was open again. 120 is susceptible to landslides any time of year. Before you go, it's always a good idea to check the current road conditions by entering 120 into the search box at the CalTrans website. You can also check for alerts on the Yosemite National Park website.
Open most any time, this route goes through Oakdale and Groveland. It's often used by visitors from the San Francisco Bay area and northern California. It passes through fruit and almond orchards, small agricultural towns, fruit stands, and ranches in the rolling foothills before ascending sharply up the Priest Grade to Big Oak Flat and the old gold mining town of Groveland.
The road is generally straight or gently curving, except for the 8-mile Priest Grade ascent, which gains over 1,000 feet of elevation in 8.5 miles.
Oakdale is the largest town on this route east of US Hwy 99 and a good place to stop for a meal or to buy groceries. It’s also a good place to top off the gas tank, the last opportunity to get gasoline at lower prices. If you’d rather picnic than eat indoors, the vista point above Lake Don Pedro (east of Oakdale) is a good place to do it.
Although it’s smaller than Oakdale, Groveland has a nice hotel, the state’s oldest saloon, and a few other places to stop for a bite to eat or to browse in while you stretch your legs.
Hwy 120 enters Yosemite at the Big Oak Flat entrance.
CA Hwy 41: It's the route most GPS and mapping sites recommend, but it's not the most scenic. The Hwy 120 route described above is only 30 miles (and 15 minutes' drive) longer - making this one of those times when you should disregard the electronic instructions. To make your GPS do what you want, choose the town of Mariposa as your destination. From there, you'll find plenty of signs pointing toward Yosemite.
From US Hwy 99 at Fresno, CA Hwy 41 runs north and west toward Yosemite’s South Entrance. It takes you through the towns of Oakhurst and Fish Camp and into the park near the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias and Wawona.
CA Hwy 41 is also your best option if you’re staying at Tenaya Lodge, which is just outside the park boundaries.
The Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad is also on Hwy 41. If you love old steam trains and want to take a ride, check the guide to the fun Yosemite train.
From the East: CA Hwy 120 and Tioga Pass
CA Hwy 120 closes in winter because of snow. To find out more about traveling it and to get average opening and closing dates, check the guide to Tioga Pass. If you just want to find out if the pass is open enter 120 at the CalTrans website.
From the East: Other Mountain Passes
Other mountain passes that can get you across the Sierras near Yosemite include the Sonora Pass (CA Hwy 108), Monitor Pass (CA Hwy 89) and Ebbetts Pass (CA Hwy 4). Snow may also close these routes in winter, but they are lower elevation and sometimes open when Tioga Pass is still snow-clogged. To get the current conditions of any of these routes, enter the highway number at the CalTrans website.
Don't Be Misled: The Answer to "Where Is Yosemite?" Might Be Wrong
Trying to answer the question "Where is Yosemite?" using a website or GPS system can be a frustrating and potentially risky thing to do.
Some GPS systems may try to put you on roads that are closed or impassable. This is particularly a problem at Yosemite, where the mountain passes are closed all winter long. The official Yosemite website says they don't recommend using GPS units for directions in and around the park - and neither do I.
Yosemite is in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, about 200 miles east of San Francisco, about 300 miles northwest of Los Angeles and a little more than 400 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
When I tried entering "Yosemite" at popular map websites and smartphone apps, results varied. Some of them thought Yosemite Valley was outside of the park boundaries in El Portal (where the park’s administrative offices are located). Another showed it on the top of a mountain with no highway access (also wrong).
Yosemite Doesn't Have an Address
Yosemite National Park is a big place that covers 1,200 square miles and doesn't have a single street address, but people often ask what the Yosemite address is so they can use it in mapping software or a GPS system.
If you need an address to input, try 9031 Village Drive, Yosemite National Park, CA or 1 Ahwahnee Drive (which is the address of the hotel). Once you get close to the park, you’ll find road signs pointing toward it, making the navigation easier.
Your best bet to keep from getting lost is to engage your common sense before you engage your vehicle’s gears. Think about the route your electronic device suggests and see if it makes sense. If you’re trying to get to a popular spot and the roads are getting smaller and less maintained, you’re probably on the wrong route. This is one place where a good, old-fashioned, paper map may be best - and study your route in advance.
Where to Get Gasoline
The nearest gas pumps to Yosemite Valley are open year-round inside the park at Wawona (45 minutes south of the valley on Wawona Road) and Crane Flat (30 minutes northwest on Big Oak Flat Road/CA Hwy 120) - and in summer at Tuolumne Meadows on Tioga Road.
At those locations, you can pay at the pump 24 hours a day with a credit or debit card. There's also a gas station at El Portal just outside the park entrance on CA Hwy 140. At any of those places, you'll pay 20% to 30% more than if you fueled up in Mariposa, Oakhurst, or Groveland where prices are comparable to what you find in the bigger California cities.
Yosemite by Bus
If you're staying outside the park, Yosemite Area Transportation System (YARTS) offers bus service along CA Hwy 140 between Merced and Yosemite Valley. During the summer when Tioga Pass is open, YARTS also offers one round trip a day between Mammoth Lake (on the east side of the mountains) and Yosemite Valley. Get more information and check their schedule and prices.
Yosemite by Amtrak Train
Amtrak's San Joaquin train route stops in Merced, where you can catch a bus to Yosemite. Get the schedule at their website.
Getting to Yosemite from San Francisco: Tours
A few bus tour companies offer one-day trips to Yosemite from San Francisco, but the drive is so long that you won't be left with much time to see the place.
Closest Airport to Yosemite
The nearest commercial airports to Yosemite are in Fresno and Merced, but both are small. For more frequent flight schedules served from more locations, try Sacramento, Oakland or San Francisco. In summer when Tioga Pass is open, Reno, Nevada may also be an option.
Closest airports for private pilots include Mariposa (KMPI) or Pine Mountain Lake (E45), but you'll need transportation from either of them to get to Yosemite.